Protection from sexual harassment is a priority – including for volunteers

During the summer the Government Equalities Office launched a consultation asking whether the current laws on protecting people from sexual harassment in the workplace are effective, and setting out some options for change.

You can read more about the proposals in my colleague Shaun’s blog. One of the key proposals is to give volunteers the same Equality Act protections against sexual harassment that employees have, with the same recourse to employment tribunals.

Responding to this was a challenging issue for everyone we spoke to, both within NCVO and among our members.

We all strongly welcome and support the government’s condemnation of sexual harassment – and harassment of any sort – in the workplace and outside it. More than that, we want to be active participants in tackling sexual harassment in all its forms.

But the question of extending employment rights needs careful consideration, because volunteers are different to employees.

The message we have heard loud and clear from our members is that volunteers deserve to be treated with respect and to be free from sexual harassment, but that this should not be achieved by bringing them within the scope of the employment rules in the Equality Act. This has been the conclusion of a number of previous consultations too, in particular the Volunteer Rights Inquiry.

So I would like to set out NCVO’s view on the proposals, and why we reached it.

You can read our full response here (PDF, 200KB).

Changes to the law are needed where there is no protection

Firstly, we agree there are areas where changes to the law are needed.

Any situation where there is a harmful imbalance of power between an organisation and an individual should be addressed as a priority. One group that isn’t covered at the moment is unpaid ‘interns’ at commercial and political organisations.

If sexual harassment does occur, these workers may be less likely to report it, either because they do not know what their rights are or because their position, both legally and in the organisation, is more precarious than that of an employee. Nor do they have the same freedom as a volunteer to walk away, because this could jeopardise their career prospects.

We think interns should have the same equality protections as employees in the workplace so we support the proposal that the law in this area should be strengthened. If there are any interns that currently do not meet the statutory criteria for workplace protections under the Equality Act, further consideration is necessary to best ensure this group is protected.

Volunteers are not the same as employees

But we think that volunteering is different.

Here, the motivation of the individual is overwhelmingly to make a difference and be part of a cause they believe in. The organisation is just the means by which that happens. Gaining skills and experience is usually a secondary or even irrelevant consideration. The power dynamic is also considered to be less imbalanced: volunteers do not have their job or career bound to the role and are under no obligation to stay – in fact organisations have to work hard to keep their volunteers happy.

Charities already strive for safe environments for volunteers

Charities want to create positive, supportive and welcoming environments for volunteers. And it’s in their interests to make sure they do, otherwise they simply wouldn’t be able to carry out their work. Most charities, including the largest, depend on the contribution of community-based volunteers.

It’s the nature of volunteering that volunteers are free to walk away at any time. So to retain them, charities have to create an encouraging climate and ensure volunteers are treated respectfully. Research shows that they succeed in this: our Time Well Spent study earlier this year found that the overwhelming majority of volunteers are happy with their experience.

There is a huge amount of good practice already out there, and charities are continuously aspiring to improve in order to meet the public’s high expectations in everything they do, including their treatment of the people who work and volunteer for them.

Our members consistently expressed a real concern that changes to the legal framework are not the right way to strengthen protections for volunteers, and that they could cause other problems. They told us:

  • these legal changes would shift the focus of volunteer managers from creating positive cultures to simply meeting a minimal requirement
  • charity resources would need to be diverted from continuously improving volunteering programmes to creating compliance mechanisms for the new rules
  • the suggestion that any legal protection should only cover formalised volunteering arrangements, and not ad hoc or informal volunteering could create different categories of volunteers, each being treated differently.

A simpler, more proportionate and quite possibly more effective method of ensuring safe environments for all volunteers would be for government to support charities in their continuous journey of self-improvement in this area, so anyone who volunteers in any way and in any place is protected from sexual harassment and discrimination.

Law and regulation are already in place to protect volunteers

It’s also important to remember that volunteers are already protected in several ways. For example:

  • volunteers are already covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997
  • charities are subject to regulation by the Charity Commission, with specific requirements for safeguarding and protecting people from harm
  • charities may also have specific duties as part of their funding arrangements or when they are performing a public function (since the public sector equality duty under section 149 of the Equality Act will apply to them).

The focus should be on culture and good practice

So, while we fully support the principle of protecting everyone from harassment, in the case of volunteers we don’t think more regulation is the right thing to do.

Developing a culture of safeguarding and encouraging good practice are a far more powerful approach.

If, following this consultation, the government decides that legislation is necessary, we think there are better ways to do it. For example, taking a similar approach to the protection that is given to members of clubs and other bodies by part 7 of the Equality Act. This would better reflect that choosing to volunteer for a particular cause is more closely aligned to becoming member of an association than it is to being an employee. But such an approach would need to be consulted on further.

Finally I’d like to thank the many charities, large and small, that took the time to give us their views, and shared their own consultation responses with us. As I said, this is a sensitive and delicately balanced issue, but we are all committed to doing the best we can for the people who work and volunteer in our charities. I’m sure this is the start of an important conversation, and that working together we can come to the right solution – one that ensures charities can give their volunteers the best and most rewarding experience.



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Elizabeth was head of policy and public services at NCVO until 2020.

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